September 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- President Berdymukhammedov's five-day U.S. itinerary includes an appearance today at Columbia University's World Leaders Forum, as well as a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and an address to the UN General Assembly on September 26.
Berdymukhammedov's five-year term began in February, after a hastily organized election that followed the death in December of Saparmurat Niyazov. Niyazov kept Turkmenistan's 5 million people largely isolated from the outside world for nearly two decades -- and prevented meaningful dialogue between Ashgabat and the international community.
Berdymukhammedov has made tentative reform pledges since taking over in December -- and then being elected in February -- and his speech on September 26 will make him the first Turkmen leader to take the rostrum before the UN General Assembly since 1995.
But rights activists are warning the international community not to allow that milestone to obscure blunt discussion with Turkmenistan's new leader.
'Close And Constant Watch'
Oleg Panfilov, a media analyst who heads the of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service today that pledges of greater openness are not enough.
"I can't predict what steps the Turkmen president may take in the future," Panfilov said, "but I think he should be under close and constant watch. It's good that various international organizations remind us regularly that there are problems in Turkmenistan with freedom of speech, which has never existed. There should be conditions created for normal journalism to emerge in Turkmenistan. The Turkmen president shouldn't just talk. He should act, too."
In an open letter to Rice, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) argues that the first U.S. visit by a Turkmen head of state in nine years offers "a unique opportunity to engage [Berdymukhammedov]...on human rights and press freedom."
Muradova, a 58-year-old correspondent for RFE/RL and a former rights monitor for the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation on Human Rights (THF), died in Turkmen custody under unclear circumstances in September 2006. She had been imprisoned on a six-year term stemming from charges of ammunition possession that human rights groups said were fabricated.
Uncovering The Truth
In its letter, the CPJ "encouraged" Rice to press for answers to "the many questions surrounding Muradova's death in prison under former leader Saparmurat Niyazov, and to ask President Berdymukhammedov for his personal involvement in uncovering the truth about her death."
"Uncovering the truth about Ogulsapar Muradova's death, as well as revealing the fates of co-defendants [Annakurban] Amanklychev and [Sapardurdy] Khadzhiyev, will be an important first step toward mending Turkmenistan's press freedom and human rights record," the group said.
Muradova's family told RFE/RL that there was clear evidence of violence when authorities allowed them to view her body.
The CPJ reminded Rice that "authorities have resisted international calls for an independent investigation into [Muradova's] death while failing to release official autopsy results."
Elsa Vidal, head of the Europe desk at Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that Berdymukhammedov needs to know that Muradova's case will not just go away, and that it is also not an isolated case.
"We want to remind him that journalists have been killed and that there is a need for a formal investigation of this death [and] that other journalists are still in jail -- and everybody here is very worried about their condition, especially their health condition," she said.
So while Berdymukhammedov is no doubt hoping to portray his administration as an engine of change -- and his country as a potentially valuable partner for energy investment and trade -- skeptics caution against placing too much emphasis on what he says during this five-day visit.
Signals, they say, are only as useful as the actions that follow.